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Transcript: Artist Laurie Simmons “I don’t want to be a second generation anything.”

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.

I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today I’m joined by the artist Laurie Simmons whose work is the subject of a major retrospective survey entitled “Big Camera Little Camera”, on show now at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas until 27 January.

“Something I take from my own life—and also being surrounded by artists and talking to them all the time—is knowing that sometimes when we embarrass ourselves it’s because we’re uncomfortable with a new place. Maybe that new place is good.” —Laurie Simmons

Before we get into the show, here’s a quick reminder to check out our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com. And now, on to today’s episode.

Laurie Simmons began using dolls and props as stand-ins for people and places in the 1970s, photographing them in tableau as a means of exploring her own memories as well as gender roles and artifice.

But Laurie, I wanted to start this show by talking to you about the people you photograph. I thought it was kind of interesting that the exhibition in Fort Worth opens with a group of portraits of people, that you made in 1974—which you said you never intended anyone to see—and it closes with portraits of living creatures whether they’re people or pets.

Tell me a little bit about working with living creatures as opposed to inanimate ones.

Laurie Simmons: I seriously don’t see myself as a portrait photographer, nor do I see myself as a person who has any skill photographing humans. Yet the bookends of this pretty broad show are portraits of people. It’s making me reexamine my own feelings about portraits and my own ability to work with humans. I always felt a bit at a loss whenever there was a real, live person in front of me.

Charlotte Burns: Why is that, do you think?

Laurie Simmons: The thing that drew me to photography in the first place was the idea of how I could use artifice and tell lies rather than truth. I think that confronting a person with a camera, it’s just you and the person. The level of artifice that I always tried to create in my work—I didn’t know how to bring it into that. Everything felt so raw and open and kind of pure.

I think in my most recent work using humans, I figured out a way to bring in artifice that made me actually comfortable to shoot.

Charlotte Burns: Thinking about the “How We See” series: you’ve made humans look kind of like creepy dolls because you painted eyes onto their eyelids, and there’s something really uncanny about the way that they look at you but don’t see you. Then the series “Some New” in which you photograph people, including your daughters, with clothes painted on them.

Laurie Simmons: It came from my total immersion into both Japanese culture, cosplay and my immersion into Internet culture. I always say that I’m far too interested in Internet culture for someone my age, but that happened. Once I started, going back to 2009, is when I discovered a love doll in Japan and spent a couple of years shooting this life-size sex doll. It kind of brought my work into human scale.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Laurie Simmons: After that I started to believe that all of my inspiration was in Japan, that I had to get back to Tokyo. I found my next series in the area of cosplay, kigurumi, which is basically an idea from mostly young people. There’s a persona that they inhabit, a kind of mask that they wear out in the world going to clubs and going shopping. When I looked at these characters I finally found this interstitial place between doll and human that was so inspiring and so overwhelming.

I thought if I found that place in 1985 I probably would’ve stopped working then. It just seemed like the sweet spot for me, this doll that could respond to my commands, move around, sit in a chair, live in my house.

Charlotte Burns: So funny.

Laurie Simmons: But after that series I started to explore more in the arena around cosplay.

Laurie Simmons: The thing that attracted me to kigurumi was that yes, there are eyeholes in the mask. The masks are very beautiful, and I love the masks that I had made.

But I think one of the interesting things about wearing these masks is that normally you need to be led around by another person. I don’t particularly like wearing them—you see a cloudy image of the world and you’re a little bit hobbled. You can’t really walk around on your own. You can sort of see but you really need to be led by the hand which gives it even more of a sort of fantastical aura.

Charlotte Burns: The idea of being out in the world as something unknown and different from yourself implies a freedom, and so to hinder that freedom by having less vision than you need to just make your way in the world seems kind of counterintuitive.

Laurie Simmons: It’s true, and I think that that lack of vision led me to immerse myself even more in the culture of cosplay. Going down that rabbit hole, I found all of these young women that do makeup tutorials painting anime eyes on their own lids. I just found the poetry of that—the metaphor of the idea that we have these eyes and we can’t see—so powerful and so potent for me.

Also, I loved the idea that it wasn’t my idea. Painting fake eyes on eyelids has come up in surrealism. It’s come up so many ways. I loved the idea that it wasn’t my idea, and that I needed to hire a very good makeup artist to be the artist in the photo.

Charlotte Burns:  You said you think this has made you reconsider your relationship to portraiture?

Laurie Simmons: Well, I’m really not done with “Some New”. There’s more that I want to do with that and I have to say, I think another thing that influenced my decision to shoot real people was shooting an actual narrative film. You’re on that monitor when you’re a director and you’re really, really studying face. I think that made me much more comfortable in terms of approaching portraiture because really, shooting a narrative film is like a very long portrait.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. That film is called “My Art” and you play an artist, Ellie, who spends a month in a borrowed house to regenerate. You’ve said that it was working on your daughter Lena’s set for her first film, “Tiny Furniture”, that gave you the opportunity to see it was possible to make a film for less than it costs to buy a decent used car.

Tell me how you got from playing a character in your daughter’s film to creating your own feature-length film, and why you wanted to do that—what the impetus was there. How autobiographical was it? How long had you harbored that ambition to work on that kind of scale and in that format?

Laurie Simmons: There are lots of questions in your question, but I can find notes in my old notebooks expressing the desire to make a narrative film as far back as 1978-79. It took a lot for me to find my way to art school, to convince my parents that that was an okay alternative to an liberal arts education.

Charlotte Burns: You knew when you were young that you wanted to be an artist. What made you realize that?

Laurie Simmons: I can’t remember ever not identifying myself as an artist. I probably liked to draw maybe more than my sisters did, and I think my mother must’ve told me I was an artist. But I think I quickly learned that being an artist or identifying oneself as an artist was a great excuse for anything you wanted to do that was, as my mother used to say, air quotes here, “different”.

I felt like being an artist gave me something of a free pass in terms of wanting to dress differently or behave differently. Even some of my more negative and subversive behaviors could be explained away by my parents just turning to their friends and saying, “Well, you know, she’s an artist.”

That kind of free pass, that became—

Charlotte Burns: Allowed you to develop your own personality as well as your profession.

Laurie Simmons: Yes, yes. It’s probably the only time I ever seriously listened to my mother, if she’s the one that decided in the first place. But that didn’t mean that my parents wanted me to go to art school. My best friend in high school, who was a guy, went off to film school and I was terribly jealous of that. But that one I could never have convinced—

Charlotte Burns: You couldn’t have gotten that far. Yes.

Laurie Simmons: Yes. Getting to art school was pretty dramatic given the community I grew up in and what my parents’ expectations were of me as a female child.

Charlotte Burns:  Tell me how that was for you.

Laurie Simmons: In hindsight, the most shocking thing about art school was when I finally made my way to New York City in the early or mid ’70s and I realized everything that they’d been keeping a secret from me. I went to art school in Philadelphia and then I came to New York, and there was a whole world of art that somehow hadn’t managed to find its way to—

Charlotte Burns: To Philly.

Laurie Simmons: Yes. I had a very traditional education, which I’m grateful for now. I was exposed to lots of art history, lots of painting, lots of sculpture. But coming to New York was a huge shock and I just couldn’t get enough of it when I finally got there. I was out every night. The art world was much smaller then, but if it wasn’t a performance or a film or a happening then it was a loft party at Trisha Brown’s and you could watch all the dancers dancing.

We used to laugh because we could all dance rock and roll, but they would all do interpretive dancing. They were not doing the kind of dancing we were doing.

Charlotte Burns: Years ago, I worked in PR and did the press for a Richard Serra exhibition. He talked about how everybody associates that period with the men living downtown and creating new kinds of arts, and he said it was the women dancers who were really pioneering bravery by leaping and pirouetting out of loft windows onto mattresses stacked on Soho pavements below. I always thought that was such a romantic and kind of wild image.

Laurie Simmons: I was so young then so all of these people, all of these artists, I recognized them and the dancers. They were already semi-famous in my world. I felt like I was just a little kid who was able to go to bars and drink near grownup artists. We knew all their names. We were very groupie-ish about the whole thing.

But it was a very particular period, and also New York was super dangerous in the early ’70s. I think about the fact that I would just walk around alone all night from one place to another. I find that absolutely horrifying now.

Charlotte Burns: Did you feel scared? Because I read somewhere that one of the reasons you started working with dolls and props was that you said having moved to New York in your 20s, you were a little bit afraid to go out on the streets. It occurred to you that you could set up scenes in your studio and get a lot of information across through these little tableaus. Were you afraid of New York or were you afraid of that persona of being a person with a camera shooting directly?

Laurie Simmons: I think it was more being out in the street, being vulnerable like that with a camera. It was much more about men and catcalls and construction workers yelling at you, and what men felt like they could do on the street then. It would be unrecognizable to you now, the way it was to walk down the street as a young woman, because really men are too afraid to behave that way now.

I was also afraid of having a camera in my hand and having somebody grab it and run away with it. But in terms of walking around the city late at night or three o’clock in the morning, I was preposterously fearless, and I would really be upset if my own children had that same level of fearlessness.

Charlotte Burns: I think there’s nothing like having children to make you feel more mortal.

Laurie Simmons: Oh my God, yes.

Charlotte Burns: You said you began working in photography at a moment when, and this is a quote, “It felt very radical and subversive for a woman to pick up a camera and use it irreverently. It felt great not to be part of the history of painting and sculpture which seemed dominated by men.”

Laurie Simmons: It took a period of time that I kind of called my “stop, look, and listen” period, when I was looking at as much art as I possibly could, going to as many performances, seeing as much film. And I remember saying to my roommate who was also a young artist, “I don’t want to be a second generation anything,” and I was very adamant about that.

I felt like the camera was being used to document a lot of the performance art and a lot of the studio art that was very in-the-moment, that actually was conceptual and couldn’t be documented any other way.

I’m thinking of one of my favorite artists at the time, Gordon Matta-Clark. I really loved the look of the black and white photographs that documented the actions. He was an activist too, but that documented the actions of him literally sawing a house in half.

Charlotte Burns: I was just thinking of that photo when you said his name.

Laurie Simmons: I really was so inspired by that work and by a lot of work that I was seeing in galleries at the time. Narrative work, conceptual work, documentation of actions performed in the world—that’s what made me pick up a camera.

Charlotte Burns: Then why work with dolls? We spoke a little bit just now about how you wanted to set up these scenes in your studio. How much of that was about play or control?

Laurie Simmons: As far as I was concerned none of it, and I didn’t want to work with dolls. That was very secret private work. I wanted to work with interiors and I was naïve enough to think that those interiors might be confused for real places. It seems so silly now, but I thought, “Well this looks like a room, and the scale is ambiguous, and perhaps someone will look at this and think it’s a full-scale room but I know it’s a miniature.” Let’s call it “magical thinking”. Every time I bought a box of furniture at a yard sale, or a stoop sale in New York, or at a thrift shop, I would take the furniture into my studio. I had a pile in the corner where I would throw the dolls away because I really wasn’t interested.

And then one day, I just picked one up and put it in one of the black and white rooms and I was suitably embarrassed. I really was embarrassed, and I didn’t show anyone that work for really a long time.

Charlotte Burns: Why were you embarrassed?

Laurie Simmons: Because I thought that playing with dolls was not a very mature thing to do. It also seemed like a very feminine thing to do.

Charlotte Burns: And you didn’t want to be seen that way?

Laurie Simmons: No.

Charlotte Burns: Why did you carry on doing it in secret and when did you start being more public?

Laurie Simmons: I started doing it secretly in 1976 when I was shooting these rooms and then in 1978 I switched to shooting them in color. I had an opportunity to show my work to Helene Winer, who was at Artist Space at the time. One of the only people that had seen my dollhouse pictures was my boyfriend and now husband, Carroll Dunham, and he said, “You really can’t go to see her without bringing the dollhouse pictures,” and I resisted.

Helene was far more interested in the dollhouse pictures and asked if she could show them in January of 1979. So, I came very close to never showing them to her. I credit him with pushing me and them into the world a little bit.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting, that relationship, because I read in the catalog that he wrote an essay and talked about your “Under the Skirt” pictures. He wrote in the catalog that they disconcerted you when you made them.

How often does that happen, that you make something and then you’re like , “I don’t feel I want to own this or put my name on this”.

Laurie Simmons: Well, it happens pretty often. It’s this feeling like you’re in enemy territory I’ve come to realize that that’s probably a good thing. It’s interesting because my character, the Ellie character in my art, meets with a very supportive friend. The friend suggests to her that she embarrass herself more, which is something I take from my own life—and also being surrounded by artists and talking to them all the time—and knowing that sometimes when we embarrass ourselves, it’s because we’re uncomfortable with a new place. Maybe that new place is good. That’s not to say that one always has to be embarrassed to move forward—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: —but certainly in some series, where I push myself, that’s been sort of the first feeling.

Charlotte Burns: Are you more comfortable? That as you’re looking back, having the opportunity to see your work laid out in a retrospective, does that help you recognize those moments where you had breakthroughs that maybe you didn’t recognize at the time?

Laurie Simmons: What I’m really interested in is the series that people seem to be focusing on—the few series that have never been seen—are three in particular that were very much rejected by art dealers. I thought, “Wow. Maybe now is the time to have a seminar for young artists and explain to them how they need to stand behind their work—”

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: “—and not discard it.” It’s good to think that we all know what we should throw away.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons:  I have a very active, ongoing relationship with my past work. I think that’s the nature of being a photographic artist and one of the things that’s a positive for me. I see my husband say goodbye to paintings and we never see them again.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, that’s really interesting. A different relationship.

Laurie Simmons: We never see them again, but I have boxes of test prints. I have transparencies. I’m constantly working with my archives. I think that’s in part because I inherited the archives of an artist who died in 1990, Jimmy DeSana.

Charlotte Burns: Your old roommate.

Laurie Simmons: My old roommate. I had to catalog his work from A to Z. But I think it’s also an excuse for me to stay engaged in my past work, because oftentimes there’s a clue in my past work that can take me to the next place I need to go.

Charlotte Burns: I wonder, too, about those kinds of sliding doors. We were talking about portraiture at the start of the show. I read that when you were talking about the underwater ballet works, you said it was a mistake because it confused everybody, and you immediately stopped doing that. I read somewhere else there was another body of work when you’d been looking at pornography. You’d only shown the work once and, “women who thought they knew my work were so shocked that I put them away very quickly.” Is that part of your practice—that you think about those moments where the reception informed whether the practice continued or not?

Laurie Simmons: I think about that a lot as part of my history or my biography.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: That’s why I go back to saying that we have to hang on to this work and look at it again with a fresh eye. It’s like fashion. It goes in and out of style with me.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: One of the things about living with a painter is that when painters get together, they talk about painting like baseball.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: They just… They talk about painting. They talk about painters. They talk about who they like. They talk about who they don’t like. Over the course of time eavesdropping on painters, I realized that there are certain painters that are just so in and so discussed and then so out, and then they come back in again—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: —later. It’s fascinating to listen to.

Charlotte Burns:  Tell me a little bit about those works that you, at the time, put away.

Laurie Simmons: It’s so interesting. There are the series that I feel like were rejected by the world in the moment.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: Then there were the series that never saw the light of day. There are these groups of things—

Charlotte Burns: Secret histories.

Laurie Simmons: Yes, secret histories. I was lucky enough to consistently show, but there were shows I would secretly refer to as “no sales, no reviews”. Those were like the black hole shows.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. That’s difficult.

Laurie Simmons: Yes. It is. It is, but resilience.

Charlotte Burns: You left Metro Pictures in 2000 discouraged because you felt that things weren’t selling. Within a month you were commissioned to design a dollhouse for commercial production, which sold briskly at $200 a piece.

Tell me about that switch, thinking in a more commercial way. Now you’ve made your own lipstick. There are other kind of collaborations that you’ve worked on.

Laurie Simmons:  I’ve always been very unapologetic about my interest in both fashion and the more commercial world. I attribute that to the fact that I grew up in a household that, while they respected my art, there was no hierarchy of art. They took me to see the Mona Lisa (1503) when I was little girl. I lined up for a really long time and my mother said, “Look, no matter where you are, she will look at you wherever you are in the room.” But I couldn’t move in the room because the room was crowded.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: Then they would also give me the Lord and Taylor shopping bag, because it had a beautiful drawing on it. They didn’t get “high”, “low”, sideways.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: My relationship to art was very egalitarian until I got to art school. Then I suddenly understood that there was museum art and advertising art and shopping bag art.

I think that when I first started to show, the thing that I wanted most was to be in a critical dialogue with both other artists and writers. It was like a game show. If there was one door that had a dollar sign on it and another door that had an art magazine—a newspaper, the Village Voice, the critic door—I wanted to go through the critic door. Of course, when I came to New York in the 70s no one was making money. No one had the expectation to make money.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Of course.

Laurie Simmons:  The thing that I was grateful for when I made “Kaleidoscope House” with my friend, the architect Peter Wheelwright, is that at a moment when things felt very…  it was a very down moment for me. I had young kids and it was very hard. We were struggling financially. It was great for me to do a project that kept me visible while I was finding my way again.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, and probably allowed you to think in a different way, too, with maybe more freedom or something.

Laurie Simmons: Yes. I feel like those projects do. That certainly wasn’t the first project I did like that. I would shoot fashion whenever I got a chance.

Charlotte Burns: You said earlier in this podcast that you “didn’t want to be a second generation anything”— which sounds like a great title for an autobiography, by the way.

Laurie Simmons: Oh God, no.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: It’s a great title! You came to be thought of as part of the Pictures Generation. Do you identify with the Pictures Generation?

Laurie Simmons: Well, the word “Pictures Generation” didn’t really happen until the show at the Met in 2010.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: So, I kind of hate the title. There were people in that loosely connected group of artists that are my really good friends, and other people, people whose work I love—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: —and other people whose work I feel less strongly about. The thing I’m most conscious of is that a group of women did emerge who all picked up cameras at the same time, and didn’t seem to care if their photos had dust on them or if the negatives were clean or if they were eight by tens in perfect frames. It was sort of the antithesis of the photo history that was being told at the Museum of Modern Art—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons:  Once I picked up a camera I decided I needed to learn everything there was to know about the history of photography. When you think about that, “photography” when I first picked up a camera was about 130 years old.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: So, the total immersion didn’t take that long.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Of course.

Laurie Simmons: I tried to teach myself everything I possibly could, and my mentor was my neighbor Jimmy DeSana, who was a photographer.

Charlotte Burns: And the Kodak man, you used to call the Kodak man.

Laurie Simmons: Oh, I called the Kodak man every day. You know that story. I had to just disguise my voice.

Charlotte Burns: I think that’s such a funny story.

Laurie Simmons:  There was one Kodak hotline and the guy that answered sounded like an astronaut. He had that perfect sort of American cadence—

Charlotte Burns: Mid-Atlantic.

Laurie Simmons: Mid-Atlantic, yes. Yes. I called him a lot.

Anyway, there was this group of women that all decided that picking up a camera was the way to go. I identify with that, that moment in history when picking up a camera… I know it seems hard to imagine now, but it did feel like a more radical act: a kind of repudiation of painting and sculpture and print making.

Charlotte Burns: Very consciously looking at domesticity and gender roles as well. That’s something that’s been a characteristic of your work throughout these different bodies of work and series and remains so. Do you think that the reception of that has changed over the years?

Laurie Simmons: I think very much now, there is a focus. Obviously, the world is changing. I am the parent of a transgender child. I feel like all of this work… I feel like I’ve only had one subject since day one, which is women in interior space. I feel like a subheading of that was the very close inspection of gender stereotypes.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: I feel like my entire post-World War II perfect-looking suburban upbringing was color coded in some way, starting with blue is for boys and pink is for girls. I often tell the story about how my mother was pregnant with her third child. She’d already given birth to two girls and she wanted a boy, so they painted the baby’s room light blue. When the baby got home from the hospital, I felt like the only conversation that I heard for days, weeks, months, were apologies that the room was light blue and it was going to be painted pink as soon as we had a moment to repaint it. These structures were so rigid about what I could wear, about what the little boys could wear, what I could play, what they could play—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: —how my mother acted, how my father acted. For a child, I had a laser focus on this sort of thing. I think it’s because I wanted to play in a boy’s world.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons:  I was very peripatetic, a wild kind of kid. I couldn’t sit still and play the kinds of games that some little girls were playing.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah. I remember being a kid and having to wear a dress and saying, “But I can’t run as fast.”

Laurie Simmons: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: It’s just annoying to be—

Laurie Simmons: And if you fall down it’s so damn embarrassing.

Charlotte Burns: You’re kind of hindered from that age—

Laurie Simmons: Right.

Charlotte Burns: Very young.

Laurie Simmons: Right.

Charlotte Burns: Tell me a little bit about sexuality in your work, because we mentioned earlier the “Under the Skirt” pictures from the ‘90s: these full skirts with a woman sitting with her legs spread, but instead of seeing anything anatomically, you see interiors of homes and rooms and domestic spaces. That’s somehow uneasy to look at.

Laurie Simmons: Well, I think that there were a collision of fantasies there. One of my favorite places to be at huge family gatherings—and this is true of many kids—is under the tabl.e.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: It seemed like a very magical place to be, wondering what’s going on under people’s skirts and seeing legs and feet. I think even watching so much Walt Disney and having fairy tales read to me and seeing images of these voluminous skirts, one could only imagine as a child what went on under those skirts.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: I think that that was one of the series that the gallery I was showing at at the time was not interested in showing it. I kind of—

Charlotte Burns: Why not? Did they say why?

Laurie Simmons: It’s much easier to remember the rejection, often, than the reason.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: We take those things very hard. Particularly when you’re working on a new series, you’re very vulnerable.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: I’m much less vulnerable now, obviously, working on new things than I was 20 years ago or even 20 years before that. It made me stop short. Another interesting thing is that, periodically, every couple of years my husband would say, “Could you please finish that series.” It was another series that he really loved.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. I thought it was interesting, too, in the essay and in the catalog, to read that your assistant had been posing for you. Your husband writes about how there was something going on, because in the studio there was a kind of closed door and your assistant was unusually jolly. I thought that was really funny that these images that are quite uneasy in this sort of way—sort of uncanny—produced mirth.

Laurie Simmons: Well, that’s kind of funny. I remember I was in Toronto and I found a thrift shop that had just these amazing prom dresses, ball gowns. I just loaded up on them. Beautiful colors. Things that I would never wear, but things that I probably wished I could. Just mountains of tulle and chiffon and—

Charlotte Burns: Fripperies.

Laurie Simmons: Yes, fripperies.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.

Laurie Simmons: Maybe she just loved dressing up.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. Yes, could just be as simple as that. We’ve touched on the love dolls that inspired your body of work and the kigurumi culture. Once upon a time I was thinking of doing a PhD on dolls and art. It’s sort of like that kid in that movie: once you see dead people you can’t not see them.

Laurie Simmons: I see dead people.

Charlotte Burns: I see dolls.

Laurie Simmons: We say that… oh.

Charlotte Burns: I was seeing dolls.

Laurie Simmons: Okay…

Charlotte Burns: I was seeing dolls in art everywhere. It was a turn of the century thing. Once you start noticing them, you couldn’t not notice them. They were in images of a little girl, Franzi, holding her doll, or Kokoschka with his dolls, or Hans Bellmer. The thing about those dolls that those male artists were creating, often, was that they seemed to do so much more with sexuality.

Laurie Simmons: Certainly Bellmer.

Charlotte Burns: Certainly Bellmer, but also Kokoschka and Der Blaue Reiter. It’s an underaged girl naked holding a naked doll. That seems so different than your work which is less, well—you’d been disinclined to focus on the sexual aspects of femaleness in your work. I just wanted to put that to you to see if you agreed with that or thought about that. Obviously, it’s something that’s become more part of the work with the love dolls, but initially it wasn’t really part of that.

Laurie Simmons: I think that initially I was using a doll figure—mannequins, puppets, dolls—as a kind of more generic stand in for… a surrogate for humans.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: There was a kind of generalized memory of my own childhood and upbringing that when I thought about my own childhood, the thing that I found interesting was that I couldn’t delineate it from what was on television or advertising in Life and Look magazine. That what was being created, or what my parents and everyone else in a post-World War II Jewish suburb, were trying to create was such a seamless appropriation of American life. That was the goal.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Laurie Simmons: I realize when I say appearances were everything—that that meant everything—it sounds like I’m diminishing my upbringing in a very profound way and saying there was no focus on education. There was no focus on religion. All of those things were true, but what I remember the most was the focus on how things looked, and my understanding as a young child that anything that looked that good couldn’t really be that good underneath.

Some kids are born with a darker view. And I feel like I was one of those kids—not to the degree “I see dead people”.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Yes, yes.

Laurie Simmons: But certainly, I saw things that felt very imperfect. So, I think initially my use of dolls was about this kind of stand in for my own life and moving this character through these various, more generalized scenarios. Non-narrative.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah. It seemed more like if those German turn of the century male artists were looking at more fantastical, sexualized dolls—

Laurie Simmons: And I wasn’t interested in that, yes.

Charlotte Burns: —with you, it’s more about re-examining the realities of those kind of spaces.

Laurie Simmons: Even when I shot with the love doll, I was knowing the use of the love doll. Having gone to the showroom—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: My 17-year-old child at the time visited the love doll showroom. I thought, “I want to use this doll because it’s a beautifully-sculpted, articulated version of a life-size young woman”. But the other stuff, no. Not going there.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: That’s the part I’m not interested in.

Charlotte Burns: Tell me a little bit about your film called “My Art”, in which you play an artist who spends a month in a borrowed house to regenerate. David Salle, the artist, said that it was one of the most accurate portrayals of being an artist and the daily life of what it means to commit yourself to making art.

Laurie Simmons: David’s comment was like the ultimate compliment for me because—let me just start by saying, artists love movies. A subset of that, is that we love talking about movies about artists, and how inaccurate they are, and how silly they are. I think after I played an artist in my daughter Lena Dunham’s movie “Tiny Furniture”, I thought wow, my kid has grown up around two artists and I even felt like her portrayal of Siri in that movie was a little bit of a caricature, wasn’t completely accurate. I just got this idea that that was something I wanted to do, that I wanted to make a film that showed more of the day-to-day life of a working artist and how it’s far less dramatic and possibly far more mundane than people suspect—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: —or expect, and how could I do that? How could I do that in the first place? I mean, how could I make a narrative film? It was so insane. I see that whole period of making the film as my being possessed by some kind of demon. I have yet to figure out the fact that I got it made and that it actually… that you could actually sit in a theater, and eat popcorn, and watch it, is one of the most astounding facts of my life to date. But I did want to make a movie about an artist, and I wanted to make a movie about a woman artist.

The first thing I knew about the film is that there would be a happy ending, and I knew that the happy ending would be that this artist—who was probably not at the top of her game—was going to get an exhibition.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: The happy ending was not going to be that she was going to get a boyfriend.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. Good.

Laurie Simmons: Okay.

Charlotte Burns: I want talk to you a little bit about loneliness because it seems that the film is in some way about struggling to find a new form of expression and being comfortable with your own thoughts.

I read somewhere that you were asked about the influence of Carrie Mae Weems. You said in her work, Italian Dreams—in which we see the back of a woman sitting alone at a desk in a darkened room with only a single high window through which we can see a blue sky and drifting snow—that that captured the loneliness that artists experience when trying to make something new. I wondered the extent to which the film that you made is about trying to capture the loneliness or be less alone in that somehow.

Laurie Simmons: I think absolutely it’s about that. I wanted to have Ellie be totally grounded, complete person. I mean, there are moments in the film when she’s not really finding her way, but I think ultimately in the alone moments of making art you could see that she’s not in pain and not lonely That she knows what her job is.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: And it was so important to me to represent that. If you’re not comfortable being alone, don’t take the job of an artist because it requires lots of time to think and lots of time to play.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: Of course, there are artists that fill their studios up with a hundred assistants and that’s another way to work, but I still think that there are these moments when you need to be with yourself. That’s what it’s about.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. To find your own way of doing things. And you also made a musical?

Laurie Simmons: Yes.

Charlotte Burns:  It’s called “The Music of Regret”, which featured vintage puppets, Meryl Streep and Alvin Ailey dancers dressed as inanimate objects. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Laurie Simmons: That sounds like a real mouthful of a movie.

Charlotte Burns: Do you plan on doing musicals or films again, or are you waiting to be possessed?

Laurie Simmons: Yes. I’m waiting to be possessed because after each film, it’s just like “Okay, that was horrible. I died.” I feel so lucky that I can go back to the quiet space of my studio shooting still work after a movie.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: Otherwise I’ll just tear my hair out because it really does take so much to make a film, and any filmmaker will share those feelings.

Charlotte Burns: There were two more things I wanted to ask you about, actually. Lipstick and motherhood. When I was researching this, you talk often about your family, and I was wondering if I was going ask you about that because, to some extent, I feel like it’s a weird question. Do men get asked that question? But then you talk about your family, and your family features in your work, and you’ve been quite open about the influence that your children have on you.

One thing I was thinking about this morning was this sense that you’ve been asked about being an artist who’s a mother in several interviews that I’ve read. I thought first of all that when I was researching the podcast with Caroll Dunham, I didn’t read any questions where people—

Laurie Simmons: Of course.

Charlotte Burns: —asked him about being an artist who had children, but you’ve been asked that question lots. But the last thing I had read, you were glad to be asked about it because it allowed you to dispel myths that you still get asked by young artists, like whether it’s possible to do both.

Laurie Simmons: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: I would give you that opportunity to dispel the myth.

Laurie Simmons: Well, your timing is incredible because I was on a panel called Motherhood this past weekend with Laurel Nakadate and Justine Kurland at a show called “Motherhood” that Laurel had organized, an exhibition. I’ll say it again Justine Kurland and Laurel Nakadate.

But one of the first things I said was probably 25 years ago. I was on a panel and someone asked me about being a mother, and my response was “Would you ask Julian Schnabel that question?” I was very indignant about it and I felt like if men weren’t being asked the question, why was I being asked the question?

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Laurie Simmons: Then I kind of had a complete reversal as I realized more and more that for some reason in our world, there’s this overriding feeling or opinion from people that it’s not okay to be a woman artist and to have children. I know this because so many young women have come to me to ask about it. I had no mentors in that department. I think it’s fascinating that there is this idea that a woman’s creativity is either located in motherhood or her work—

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Laurie Simmons: —and that it can’t be in both places. Now I have grown children and I’ve seemed to have kept going. I feel like, why not speak out about it? Why treat it like the subject is taboo?

Charlotte Burns: Yes. I think it’s really interesting because when I had a child, I remember thinking will this impact my career and—

Laurie Simmons: Of course.

Charlotte Burns: —and it did actually, because I had to get a new job because my old employer didn’t want to pay me maternity.

Laurie Simmons: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: So, it did actually change my career. But I remember thinking a friend of mine who’s a guy had a child just before I did. I said, “How has it changed your life?” And he said, “Well, it’s made me more ambitious. I’ve never felt such desire to be healthy or productive”, and I think that that’s true. That’s something that no one had really told me. I remember thinking, if I’m going to work, which I need to do, I want it to be the most interesting work I can do—

Laurie Simmons: Right.

Charlotte Burns: Because why would you want to go and spend your day counting the hours down until happy hour?

Laurie Simmons: Right.

Charlotte Burns:  I remember thinking the same thing—no one really talks about that.

Laurie Simmons: Yes. Well, I think it’s a real gift to be able to give your children the idea that work can also be a passion. Of course, those opportunities are not there for everyone we know.

Charlotte Burns: Of course.

Laurie Simmons: But if you can even have an inkling of an idea that you could love what you do or have that be an expectation if you’re lucky enough to be on that path. That’s really a gift. I mean, there are so many gifts you can give your children. I think the thing that I’m the proudest of in terms of both of our children is their activism and their desire not to just be in the world, but to actively change the world in whatever ways they can.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Laurie Simmons: And in those ways, I often say that my kids are my mentors in terms of moving into the 21st century. I look to them for a lot in terms of inspiration and information.

Charlotte Burns: Well, thank you so much for being my guest today. This has been a real pleasure. For people who haven’t seen it please head to Fort Worth to see “Big Camera, Little Camera”, which is on until the end of January, and then traveling to the MCA in Chicago where it will open in February. Thank you so much for being my guest.

Laurie Simmons: Thanks. It was great to be here.

 

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